Ireland have been on the All Blacks' case for more than a century now, and have nothing more satisfying than a single draw to show for their considerable pains. They could, and should, have changed things for the better in Wellington yesterday – indeed, the Irish may never have a finer opportunity of putting one over the silver fern – but they came up short, as per usual.
The All Black nation has yet to emerge from the confusion and insecurity caused by the World Cup defeat by France last autumn. They have lost influential players to the cash-rich Eurozone – Daniel Carter, the pin-up who wears the No 10 shirt, will soon be joining Doug Howlett, Luke McAlister, Aaron Mauger, Carl Hayman and Chris Jack in the northern hemisphere – and there has been all manner of controversy over the reappointment of Graham Henry as head coach. What is more, this game was played in the least forbidding of New Zealand's rugby fortresses, the national team having lost a greater proportion of their matches here than at any other of their Test venues.
Yet when the serious questions were asked of BrianO'Driscoll and Co, they could find no answers. The desperate conditions – Noah himself might have felt at home, such was the deluge – did precious little for the All Blacks' running game, and the slow tempo suited the Irish forwards, who were competitive enough up front in a Munster kind of way. RonanO'Gara's kicking game was more secure than that of the below-par Carter, and they reached the interval on level terms at 8-8. Even so, the tourists' effort petered out.
Carter had a rough time of it one way or another, but it was he who provided the impetus for New Zealand's victory with a single slashing line-break early in the final quarter. A touch on the after-burner took him past O'Gara, and when the ball was moved left by the blindside flanker Rodney So'oialo and the replacement prop John Schwalger, a stretched Irish defence was in no position to prevent Ma'a Nonu sliding over on the sodden turf, with Shane Horgan and Robert Kearney clinging to the centre's clothing. The try was converted by Carter and the All Blacks were 10 points to the good, more or less home if nowhere near dry.
They were relieved to win. Ireland, more experienced up front and playing to a familiar set of "Euro-pean" rules rather than the much-criticised Experimental Law Variations, shaded the first half and might have turned round ahead. O'Gara opened the scoring with a penalty eight minutes in before the hosts scored a blinding try – Andrew Hore's pinching of the ball off Marcus Horan on the floor allowing the ever-intelligent Conrad Smith to cruise away from O'Driscoll and send Sitiveni Sivivatu in at the left corner.
All Black hesitation at the restart allowed the Irish forwards to set up camp deep in opposition territory. New Zealand found themselves short of numbers on the blindside and unable to prevent Paddy Wallace (left) clatter-ing over for a five-pointer. With Paul O'Connell and David Wallace running hot in the loose, it took the home side the best part of 20 minutes to earn Carter an equalising shot at the sticks.
However, the All Blacks had achieved a measure of superiority at scrum and line-out, and built on this foundation after the break.O'Gara and Carter swapped penalties, but when Horan was harshly penalised for dropping a forearm on an opponent – the phrase "handbags at dawn" sprang to mind – Carter struck again to open up a three-point lead and prepare the ground for his late, decisive act of brilliance.